Monthly Archives: April 2013

Categorization and its discontents

image from upload.wikimedia.org
Wikipedia is going through one of its periodic existential crises, this time over the use of categories. A diligent editor created a category of "American women novelists" and began adding female novelists to it, and then removing them from the category "American novelists". A predictable hue and cry ensued. James Gleick tells the story in some detail in the NY Review of Books, under the title "Wikipedia's Women Problem".

Categorization is hard in a Wikipedia world. The namespace for articles is flat, so there's no implicit categories assigned simply by what a page is named. On the other hand, categories can contain subcategories, and the Wikipedia editors take advantage of this to create elaborate categorical structures. Everything is part of something else, in some extended rhetorical tangle. (The image is from the article Wikipedia:Categorization.)

Categories don't have to have subcategories, of course; that's a convention that's not universal to all wiki software. Localwiki's equivalent structure looks more like tags, and tags are in one big flat namespace with no explicit hierarchy.

Fundamentally the choice is how to best improve findability of articles, and how to incorporate a distinctive feel to a system. Wikipedia has "Category:Doughnuts", with one subcategory "Doughnut shops" which in turn has a subcategory "Tim Hortons" which in turn has 12 pages, including Timbits. Arborwiki has a page Donuts, which includes pages tagged with the tag "donuts", and is in turn tagged as "Pastries that are not strange". (And yes, there is a "Pastries that are strange" tag as well.)

Wikipedia has a problem when the technically correct task of splitting a big category into smaller parts runs smack into the political minefield of deciding which part of the category is to be primary and which is to be secondary. No one wants to be secondary, and no reasonable system would always yield category warring. Perhaps Wikipedia has bumped up against some size limit where it's impossible for any one person to understand the complexity of the classification system it has built.

Related articles

Wikipedia bumps women from 'American novelists' category
Wikipedia working to get rid of women in category: American novelists
What's In A Category? 'Women Novelists' Sparks Wiki-Controversy
American novelists are dudes, according to wikipedia
Is Wikipedia Ghettoizing Female Writers?
Wikipedia's Sexism – NYTimes.com
[eim][misc] Too big to categorize
Losing the categorical imperative
What's In A Category? 'Women Novelists' Sparks Wiki-Controversy
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April 29, 2013 Windstream outage

This map, compiled from traffic to this weblog, paints an approximate picture of the distribution of problems from today's Windstream outage. More official news (though sparse) is at the news.windstream.com site.

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 4.25.22 PM
In the news:

From the WindstreamCommunications page on Facebook, about 4 p.m:

Service update: Our technicians continue to troubleshoot the issue in an attempt to resolve. We apologize for the inconvenience and will provide another update in an hour.

From the Charlotte Observer: Windstream customers, company report outage

A number of Windstream Corp. customers in the greater Charlotte area are experiencing service outages affected by what the company is calling “a widespread outage affecting long-distance and toll-free call processing.”
The outage occurred around 11:30 a.m., said company spokesman David Avery.
Though the Arkansas-based company hasn’t stated how far the outage extends, posts on Twitter and Facebook suggest the outage is multi-state.

Notes from my talk on Arborwiki and Localwiki at eChicago, 2013

I had the good fortune to talk about Arborwiki and Localwiki at eChicago in April 2013. Here are the notes that I took in preparation for the talk; the actual text of the talk varied from this, since I was speaking impromptu.

About Arborwiki

Who: More than a dozen core contributors over the lifespan of the project, plus many more who have made small edits to pages.

Where: Greater Ann Arbor – including Washtenaw County and the farmers who come to the Farmers Market from surrounding counties.

When: Started in September 2005 as a class project at Community High School, then moved to servers at the Ann Arbor District Library.

What: About 10,000 pages, including the most popular Birthday Deals, Volunteer Opportunities, and perennial favorite Donuts and Paczki pages.

Why: To build community information about the Ann Arbor area.

Guiding principles

Locality, not notability, is the main criterion for relevance; if it's here, then it's relevant.

Take a local point of view, not a neutral point of view; original text and personal views welcomed.

Lots of external links to reference sources.

State of the project

Arborwiki is a mature system – it has over 10,000 pages in it, and thus there's likely to be something about most things that people might look for that are relevant to the Ann Arbor area.

One advantage to maturity is that a lot of people know about the project through a popular "Birthday Deals" page, and we don't have to explain in the abstract what we're working on – that individual page gets about two hundred visits per day.

A second advantage is that we've gotten tremendous amounts of cooperation from the Ann Arbor District Library system, including help with research, links, technical support, and free hosting for this community project.

Challenges of a mature system

There's no "new wiki" smell, and we can't count on having a barn-raising strategy for people who want to document their community for the first time. Any enthusiasm has to be in the context of a lot of things that already exist.

The core of regular contributors is relatively small compared to the number of pages in the system. It would take 30+ page edits per day of existing pages just to get enough eyes on the older parts of Arborwiki just to keep each page refreshed to be less than a year since its latest edit.

There are too many short, uninformative pages with just a single bare link and no photo, no map, no template etc. One editor – and that would be me – went through a long period of emphasizing quantity over quality. Now that the quantity is there, it's time to focus on quality.

The site needs more photos and better support from photographers.

The Ypsiwiki problem

Once upon a time there was a separate Ypsiwiki which covered Ypsilanti. It was decided to merge those pages in because there was too much project overlap and not quite enough of a critical mass to keep the two systems separate. The Arborwiki name was retained, and as a result, there's resistance overall from contributors from Ypsilanti to contribute to a project that's not theirs.

What to do next

Improve the most popular pages on the site. Use Google Analytics to identify the pages that get the most traffic, and go through them page by page to ensure that they are up to date, correct, accurate, and informative.

Create new pages based on a "Page not found" report from Google Analytics, noting where people click on terms that get them to a blank or empty page.

Visit a random page in the site and make it better. Add a map, a photograph, a category, or a paragraph of information.

Learn the seasonal rhythms of the site. For example, the Paczki page gets traffic for about a week a year, but the Donuts page gets steady traffic year round.

Follow public meetings like the meetings of the Ann Arbor City Council, and tweet out links to projects or issues that are relevant agenda items.

Wish someone a happy birthday by sending them a link to the Birthday Deals page on Facebook.

Reward new contributors by recognizing them in public through Facebook or Twitter links to their new contributions.

Recognize that a Localwiki project has a natural size, and identify where you are in the process.

Pay attention to traffic patterns – popular pages, referral sites, keywords used.

If you want traffic, track the news, and befriend local media so that they are aware of the resource.

Losing the categorical imperative

For a long time – over 2000 posts – I have been putting blog entries into categories. The categories used to live in a long list on the right sidebar. I’ve taken them out of the sidebar, and now they’re much less visible in the user interface to the point of being invisible unless you happen to search for them.

I have touched enough categories to not be authoritative on any of them. A good, tidy, modern blog that is comprehensive in some narrow sphere would have a tidy list of categories and would post in each of them regularly enough to be helpful. In contrast, a laundry list of one-time enthusiams just makes it pointedly clear when my interests have waxed and waned.

Another problem is that Typepad doesn’t have a straightforward way to “pin” a blog post to the top of a category, the same way that it can mark a post to stay on top of the main page. That makes it trickier to create permanent navigation within a category.

I do hope to put together some better navigation, so that someone coming to the blog for the first time can read some more popular posts or ones that I like. The whole thing has long since gone from a narrow, coherent narrative and turned into an unpolished open notebook, gathering scraps from here and there and not always pieces that have an obvious relation to the work as a whole. If it were a real scrapbook it would have tape-tags sticking out of it at all angles in all colors flagging things that deserve to be seen again; that doesn’t have to be done with categories.

More reading: Do your categories still make sense?, from Blogger’s Secret.

Related articles

I want to put you in a category
blogger vs journalist, day 5
Category:Categories
Categories, What’s the Point?
Pick a Label – How to Categorize the World – April 23, 2013

Zoom! Speeding up the web, one page at a time

ZoomI was reading this Medium post from Eric E Anderson on blog design and especially on sidebars, and decided to rework the design of this blog. No more interminable list of categories – instead, just one little picture of me upper left, and a link to the book I'm working on upper right.

The full article is worth reading; it suggests that the footer is unexplored territory for blogs, and that you're better off with a single column with the relevant consequental contextual information at the bottom, not on the side.

I'm a little hurt by making the sidebars full of white space, but not much. My paper notebooks have lots of marginalia, but they are marginalia that change with every page, and a lot of it is sidebar note-to-self rather than publishable anything. Still, the pages load a lot faster when they don't have quite so much crap on them, and I haven't even started to explore adding more stuff at the bottom.

Typepad is particularly good as a place to play with designs, they have a lot of premade ones that look much better than anything I would cobble together on my own (see e.g. this early effort which I wrote in vi, which is probably where I'd start from if left to my own devices).

Pages load a lot faster. Zoom! And that alone is worthwhile to do a redesign for.